Is Primark Ethical and Sustainable?

Primark is one of the most affordable stores on the planet - but does that mean it's more harmful than others?

Last Updated on June 4, 2023

Primark is one of the most affordable high-street shops out there, but how sustainable are they and do they use ethical practises?

For those who need to cloth a family on a budget, Primark is a lifesaver. The Irish fast-fashion chain sells everything from beauty products, to on-trend fashion and homeware, making it a great place to shop if you’re looking to save some cash.

When UK shops opened again after months of lockdown, shoppers flocked to the affordable store to stock up on supplies. Primark doesn’t sell online, so no doubt the business was crying out for a much-needed cash injection too.

Many criticised the shoppers risking their health to go straight to Primark, but in a piece for the Huffington Post, journalist Jess Evans wrote: ‘There is a large group of shoppers, not all, but a sizeable group, who do not have another option to shop elsewhere, for the simple reason that it is considerably cheaper than other high street alternatives.

‘For many people, they don’t have a choice, and I don’t expect privileged middle class folk to have empathy, because they don’t understand what that’s like.’

Before we get into the nitty gritty of whether the brand’s ethics are up to scratch, we had to mention that for many, shopping at Primark isn’t a choice.

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Is Primark ethical?

Primark has a bad reputation for being unethical because of its cheap prices, but is it that simple?

The brand’s Primark Cares page sets out their stance on ‘people and production,’ stating that every factory must commit to meet ‘internationally recognised standards’ before it is approved to work with them. 98% of the factories Primark uses also manufacture for other brands as unlike the Boohoo group, they don’t own any factories.

Despite Boohoo failing to pay their UK-based garment workers the minimum wage, most brands that do own factories are able to implement safe working conditions and fair wages for their employees. As Primark outsources manufacturing to suppliers, the responsibility ultimately lies elsewhere, which makes for an easier life for them – but presumably not their workers.

It’s only recently that the brand started listing the factories they use on their website, but they’re still only declaring 95% of them rather than the whole supply chain. This year, they also failed to disclose policies and safeguards to protect workers in their supply chain from the impact of Covid-19.

READ MORE: Is Marks & Spencer Ethical and Sustainable?

Primark model wears brown top

The factories they work with are audited at least once a year, but Primark don’t make it clear if the first and second stages of production are also audited. The brand have a team of 100 who carry out this work, which is arguably not enough to ensure the guidelines are being adhered to.

It’s not surprising then that it received a relatively low score of 31-40% on the Fashion Transparency Index, but they’ve made steps to becoming more ethical in recent years.

Following the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster that saw 1,134 workers lose their lives after the Dhaka factory collapsed, Primark signed the 2018 Transition Accord to commit to work with ‘other brands, factory owners, NGOs, trade unions and the Government of Bangladesh to bring about sustainable positive change in the Bangladeshi garment industry.‘ They also became a signatory to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, helping factories become and stay safe for workers.

The fashion are also a signatory to the Cotton Pledge, which commits to boycott forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton production, and are a member the Ethical Trade Initiative. However despite the brand claiming they ‘expect wages to be fair,’ the Code of Conduct does not ensure this.

If you want to know other brands’ sustainability initiatives, you can check our guides for Zara, Mango, & Massimo Dutti.

READ MORE: How ethical is ASOS?

Is Primark sustainable?

Primark are making steps to becoming more environmentally friendly.

It has been using paper bags in-store since 2002 and has made a conscious effort to reduce waste through initiatives.

It’s teamed up with the charity Delivering Good over in the US, donating items that don’t sell to those in need rather than dumping them in landfill. This extends to Europe too, where stores have donated unsold items and samples to Newlife, a charity that provides support for disabled and terminally ill children, to help them raise money.

Their website claims that they’re ‘reviewing the type of chemicals used to dye materials’ through the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals programme, and are a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, meaning they’re ‘committed to measuring and improving social and environmental sustainability impacts’.

The brand also now measures the greenhouse gas emissions produced from its operations and some of its supply chain, and has joined the United Nations’ Fashion Charter (UNFCCC). This includes a commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030. Read more about the UNFCCC here.

Primark model wears blue midi dress

Despite Primark’s positive steps, it’s worth mentioning that the brand operates on a fast-fashion business model, churning out new designs every week and encouraging consumers to buy more and wear their purchases less. This type on consumption can never be sustainable, as it creates landfill and waste that pollutes our planet.

Primark Animal Welfare Policy

Primark doesn’t use fur, angora, exotic animal skin or hair, or down feather.

While it does use wool and leather, the store – known as Penney’s in Ireland – is a member of the Leather Working Group, which assesses and certifies leather manufacturers.

Good On You also claim that the brand fails to state the sources of its leather and wool, meaning the wellbeing of the animals cannot be guaranteed.